For a country to be seen to be ‘leading the world’ is usually regarded as a matter for national pride. The UK, however, has been shown to be a world leader in an entirely negative context – we have led the world in destroying our natural environment.

Based on a tool for assessing biodiversity, known as the Biodiversity Intactness Index, which estimates the percentage of natural biodiversity that remains across the world and in individual countries, the UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. We stand in the bottom 10% globally and last among the G7 group of nations. According to researchers, only around half of our biodiversity remains, far below the global average of 75%, while a figure of 90% is considered the ‘safe limit’ to prevent the planet from tipping into an ecological meltdown.

The reasons for this situation are many and varied. They start with the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent development of industry, building and farming that have seen nature being depleted. The slide accelerated from the middle of the 20th century with the drive for ever-increased production which saw the increase of intensified livestock farming and an arable strategy that required hedgerows to be ripped out to accommodate large-scale equipment on prairie-like fields.

The situation was exacerbated by the Common Agricultural Policy, which delivered CAP payment to farmers simply for occupying farmland. Environmental factors were largely unaccounted for under the CAP scheme, so trees, wetlands, scrub and other natural features were all ineligible for payment. In the uplands, where intensive farming is not viable without subsidies, the environmental implications were horrendous. Over-grazing compacted the soil, so there was nowhere for rainwater to go, leading onwards to flooding and loss of biodiversity. Large-scale arable farming on marginal land saw the land being degraded and topsoil vulnerable to simply being blown away.

Coping with these situations came with a cost – and not just to the natural environment. Taxpayers were paying for the subsidies, and then paying again to put right the damage caused by those subsidies. To make matters worse, we, the public, were effectively suffering from Shifting Baseline Syndrome (SBS). Although this is not an actual medical condition, it has been gaining traction across environmental disciplines. Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995 while referring to increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS is “a gradual change in accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition”. In other words, we weren’t missing what we hadn’t had.

Now, in the 21st century, there is growing awareness of the vital importance of biodiversity in our natural environment and a recognition that things have to change.

So what do we do about it? Rewilding has been put forward as one solution, but it is one that can prompt a range of reactions, not all of them positive. We need to look at exactly what is meant by rewilding – and that generally depends on who is talking about it.

The term was coined in 1992 by the American conservationist and author Dave Foreman who went on to found the Rewilding Institute and it described the kind of large-scale wilderness restoration that he and others advocated. In US terms, the shorthand definition of rewilding is the “3 c’s” – conservation of cores, corridors and carnivores. It was envisioned as a large-scale effort in North America with protection of large wilderness cores, suitable habitat for wildlife movement and recovery of large carnivores – apex species at the top of their food chain, with no natural predators – to ‘manage’ the impact of grazing animals.

In Europe, rewilding has been associated with the abandonment of farmland as a result of younger generations rejecting the low financial returns and hard manual work of farming and moving to cities. Rewilding is seen as a way of letting the natural world manage itself, with the reintroduction of predator species to help return balance to the ecosystem.

While rewilding has its advocates in the UK, it also has its critics. One factor is the potential reintroduction of apex species like wolves, as has happened in the US and Europe. Yes, you can argue that the wolf may once have been a native species before being hunted out of existence here, but today’s demography is somewhat different from the days when wolves roamed the landscape.

Wildness is contrary to British ideas, so handing over large swathes of landscape to nature, eliminating human intervention, is not desirable – nor is it practical. We need farming.

If we have learned anything from recent world events, it is that we need to increase our food security by reducing supply chains and producing more of our own food. We need sufficient supplies of wholesome and nutritious food, but without the adverse impacts that the system under CAP, with its many defects, delivered.

We need food – and we need biodiversity. So how do we get both? Rewilding to the original US model is not the answer, but, interestingly in the US scientists also use the term ‘restoration ecology’ which perhaps better describes what we should be aiming for. There are already examples here of rewilding projects that increase biodiversity and restore ecological function while incorporating grazing livestock as a key component. Many of these projects happen on a smaller scale and do not necessarily self-identify as rewilding – “rewilding lite” perhaps?

A leading example we have in the UK is the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, inherited by its current owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, in the 1980s as a loss-making arable and dairy farm. They assumed that the losses were due to the fact that the estate had not kept up with the times, so they tried going bigger and better but still made a loss. After 17 years of trying they realised that the soil on their land simply could not support the type of farming they were practising and looked for an alternative. They arrived at a solution based on the work of Dutch environmentalist Frans Vera using free-roaming grazing animals to help restore the very marginal clay land they had been trying to farm conventionally.

Crucially, Isabella Tree in her best-selling book about the Knepp project describes it as ‘wilding’ rather than rewilding. Wilding by contrast is potentially more palatable and less threatening to stakeholders since, rather than implying a return to a previous wild state, it suggests only that conditions are getting to some degree wilder. This is a concept that is more acceptable in the UK context where an incremental increase in wildness is potentially acceptable but a return to complete wilderness is unpalatable.

It is also a concept that creates a positive role for our native breeds. Bred to thrive in British landscapes, not needing much in the way of expensive environmentally damaging inputs, native breeds have a key role to place in this wilder form of farming.

In her presentations on Knepp, Isabella Tree uses the words “producing what the land can contain”, an approach that could help us produce the food we need without returning to the destructive CAP-like situation that has got us to the bottom of the heap in terms of biodiversity. Enabling farmers to generate a decent living without overstocking their farms and overgrazing their land does call for financial support, but with the introduction of the Environmental Land Management scheme – ELM – we have a unique opportunity not only to pay our farmers to produce the food we need but also to reward them for being the custodians of our biodiversity.

July 2022